Border Dispute Part of China’s “Five Fingers” Strategy

  • All these disputes started only after China's occupation of Tibet in 1950.
  • After the occupation of Tibet, Chinese eyes have always been on Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
  • China has also been accused of instigating border disputes with Bhutan and Nepal.

The Indo-China border dispute has been in the spotlight due to the violent clashes in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley over the past month. In the eastern and northeastern areas of the country, there has been a rift over the issue for the past seven decades. China has been claiming Sikkim’s merger with India as illegal until 2003.

Sovereignty over two relatively large and several smaller separated pieces of territory has been contested between China and India. Aksai Chin is located either in the Indian union territory of Ladakh or the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. The other disputed territory lies south of the McMahon Line.

China still considers the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh a part of South Tibet. There have often been minor disputes over the Nathula border of Sikkim bordering Tibet. Actually, the border of India is not adjacent to China, but to Tibet. All these disputes started only after China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950.

In 1959, after the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, reached India on foot through the Arunachal border, the bitterness over the border increased. Now, in the latest case, the border dispute with Bhutan is part of the Chinese strategy to pressure India on the Arunachal issue.

How Disputes with China Started

Until 1950, the 543 km long route from Nathula, in Sikkim, to Tibet, reaching southwest China, was called the Silk Route. This road has been the lifeline of the economy of these three regions for more than 1,900 years.

However, after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, where the dispute over the border of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh started, the famous Silk Route in India and abroad was closed after the 1962 War. Although it was reopened later, in 2006, it is often closed. Even at this time, it has been closed.

After the occupation of Tibet, Chinese eyes have always been on Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. As Lobsang Sangay, leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile says:

“The issue of Tibet is at the core of ongoing India’s border tensions with China. It was only after Chinese illegal occupation of Tibet in 1959 that India and China came to share the now-disputed border. Chairman Mao Zedong’s expansionist strategy from the 1950s was to occupy Tibet and annex the five fingers: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. What we saw in Dokalam in 2017 and now at Ladakh is the unravelling of that strategy. Hence this is a challenge for India.”

There is also a long history of skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese military in the eastern region. Violent clashes took place between September 11 and September 15, 1967, at the Nathula border post in Sikkim. Thereafter, there were attacks in Cho La in October of the same year. On 20 October 1975, four Indian soldiers were killed in an attack by Chinese soldiers at Tulung La in Arunachal.

China Again Claimed the Disputed Area

The latest border dispute with Bhutan began last month when China objected to the Global Environment Facility Council (GEFC) meeting over the allocation of funds for the Sakateng Wildlife Sanctuary project in the eastern part of Bhutan, saying it is a disputed area.

Then, Bhutan strongly opposed it. After that, China has once again claimed its disputed territory. The border of the said wildlife sanctuary, spread over an area of ​​650 square kilometers in the district of Trasigang, in the eastern region of Bhutan, is a matter of concern for India.

Political analysts say that China’s objective is to increase pressure on India on the issue of Arunachal. The reason for this is that China never had any border dispute with Bhutan in the eastern region. There has been a border dispute with China in central and western Bhutan, and both countries have met 24 times since 1984 on this issue.

Never before, however, had China claimed the said sanctuary. This meeting has not taken place after the Doklam dispute. China does not have diplomatic relations with Bhutan. For this too, a part of Chinese leadership and media has been blaming India.

The Five Fingers of Tibet is a Chinese foreign policy attributed to Mao Zedong that considers Tibet to be China’s right hand palm, with five fingers on its periphery: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh, and that it is China’s responsibility to “liberate” these regions. It was never discussed in official Chinese public statements, but external concerns have been raised over its possible continued existence or revival.

Pressure on India through Doklam

By the way, China had tried to put pressure on India earlier, in 2017, through the Doklam dispute. Dr. Geeta Kochhar of the Center for Chinese and South Asian Studies at JNU says, the latest dispute is part of the ongoing geopolitical game between India and China. China has long been trying to increase its dominance in the region. On the instigation of that, Nepal has also included Indian areas in its map.

Political analysts in Bhutan fear that the sanctuary dispute will also be a major issue when the next round of talks with China begins on the border. Says Lamsang, “Permanent resolution of the border dispute with China is necessary. If this does not happen, China will often make such claims as part of a strategy to increase pressure.”

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Benedict Kasigara

I have been working as a freelance editor/writer since 2006. My specialist subject is film and television having worked for over 10 years from 2005 during which time I was the editor of the BFI Film and Television.

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